BUT, there are so many fancy products now for preserving foods that it can feel overwhelming (and expensive) to even try! Vacuum sealers? Waterbath or pressure cooker? Food strainers? Cherry pitters? Apple peeler/corer/slicers?! How about just the canning accessory kit (on amazon.com for $15!) A lot of those specialized things are helpful (I actually have a canning kit much like that one, and I make good use of it) but they are not necessary (I helped my mom bottle food for 15 years without a rubber-coated bottle lifter thank you very much!)
Here are a few things to ease your way (and if you have other ideas, please share in the comments!)
- The simplest way to save money is to borrow equipment! During canning season many people who own the equipment will be using it, but sometimes you can find someone who isn't using them, or at least is willing to lend you things for a few days, or to get together with you to process your food.
- Check out garage sales and thrift stores...equipment (or especially jars) are often available there.
- Ask around! Lots of people are happy to pass on things for free. I have accumulated several dozen canning jars by making my interest known and being willing to go pick them up from whomever had them. I got two dozen jars AND a steam canning processor when a woman at church passed away and I was the only person in the area that her daughter knew would use the equipment!
- Remember that low-acid foods (beans, meat, etc) must be canned in an actual pressure cooker to be safe, but otherwise you can get by with a steam canner or waterbath (or a makeshift waterbath!)
- If you have a big, deep pan, you can use the waterbath method of canning--you don't need the special pan. You just need a pan that is big enough to put in several jars with space between each of them, and deep enough to get water about 1 inch above the top of the jars. Place a towel in the bottom of the pan to keep the glass jars slightly off the bottom of the pan (it helps the heat circulate more evenly, and also helps prevent bonking/breaking). I use an old stained hand towel. I used a second hand towel or washcloth in the center of the pan with the corners pushed between the bottles a bit to help avoid their banging against each other.
- Fit as much as you can into each jar. Once you've filled it, put your foot up on a stool or chair rung and thump the jar against your leg to get the food to settle (put a hand over it so you don't throw food everywhere!), then fill in the top again.
- Buy canning lids separately from the rings. You only need a few rings, because you can reuse them year after year. I store mine on an old wire hanger like this The lids alone are much cheaper than the lid/ring combos. ☺
- Save glass mayonnaise jars if you like (they work fine for canning even though they look slightly different), and definitely save the mayo lids!! You can use those lids on opened bottled food, since once the seal is broken then the canning lid isn't much good anymore. (You can also buy plastic screw-on lids specifically made to fit on canning jars.)
- If you don't have a fancy jar-lifter, you can use a potholder or folded over washcloth or handtowel. Do be careful if you're doing this with a waterbath because wet fabric will get very hot... I use a mug to scoop out some of the water from the top of the waterbath before removing the jars.
- If you don't have a funnel, go get one. ☺ If you don't have a good funnel it will be harder to get things into the jar, but it can be done. You might want to use wide-mouth jars because (obviously) they have a wider mouth, and it's easier to get things into them.
- I recommend using all one size jar mouths. Whether you have quart jars, pint jars, or half-pint jars, you can get them with wide or regular mouths. If all your jars have the same size mouth, then you won't need to have two sets of lids/rings.
- Again with the borrowing--vacuum sealers are expensive, but the bags aren't too much, and you might be able to borrow a sealer and just buy your own bags.
- Old jars (plastic or glass) can be used to freeze things. If the item you're freezing has liquid content, then be sure to put the lid on loosely for the first day, then go back and tighten them after the liquid has expanded (otherwise you will have broken jars and big messes all over your freezer!)
- If you're going to use ziploc-style bags, get the good ones. Cheap bags break or don't seal well and you'll end up losing your food. It's worth the small extra expense up front to have quality storage containers! I like the double-seal brand-name freezer bags (like ziploc or glad). I also recommend against the 'zipper' style bags with the sliders, as they do not give an airtight seal.
- When freezing fruit--especially something like berries--wash it, then set it out on a cookie sheet or towel to dry before you bag it. You may even put it in the freezer on that cookie sheet just for an hour or so, and then bag it. This will help prevent it from freezing into a gigantic solid blob. ☺
- "Fruit Fresh" will help fruit maintain its color when frozen. It is available near the pectin or other canning supplies. About 1Tbs of fruit fresh is mixed with a little sugar and then sprinkled into the chopped fruit before freezing.
- Freezer jam can be frozen in any container that has a secure lid. It is preserved by being frozen, NOT by being sealed, so you do not need the rubber-sealing ring that canning jars/lids have. I save condiment jars (even baby food jars!) and use those for my freezer jams. (Pickle jars tend to have too strong an odor for jams, but plastic peanut butter jars are good.)
- For meat--except maybe ground/shredded meat--put it in a ziplock, and then add water in with it. (Over the sink!) gently squeeze it up toward the top until the water is spilling out, then seal it without letting any air get back in. This will prevent freezer burn since the meat is sealed in ice, so it's air-tight.
- I save containers--all kinds of containers. If it has a lid that screws on, I keep it. I love glass containers, but I use plastic too--there is something to be said for size, and a LOT of things come in big plastic bottles.
- When I open a 50lb bag of flour, I pour it into smaller containers--5 gal plastic buckets if I have them, but also the 4lb (about 1gal) peanut butter jars, jumbo-size metamucel jars, and so on. I store pasta, wheat, sugar, oats, rice, and all sorts of dry goods in those big containers.
- Do be careful of labeling or else you'll do what I did and use 2 cups of salt when you wanted 2 cups of sugar!! I use a little piece of masking tape to label each one--easy to remove if I use it for something else later.
In the interest of full disclosure...and maybe a teeny bit of boasting, yes, all the preserved food pictured here is from what we've put up this year: peaches, fireweed jelly, blueberries and rhubarb, salmon, and apricot freezer marmalade. ☺